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Oswald Arnold Gottfried Spengler (1880-1936)


German philosopher of history, whose famous work, The Decline of the West (1918-1922) combined Nietzschean poetic argument with a pessimistic view of the permanence of humankind's achievements. According to Spengler, Western culture is doomed, as other cultures have been before it, and has already entered its degenerate last stage. The idea of decline was in fact ancient – Hesiod wrote of the lost golden age in the 8th century BC – but Spengler gave to the theme the most eloquent and prophetic interpretation.

"Is there a logic of history? Is there, beyond all the casual and incalculable elements of the separate elements of the separate events, something that we may call a metaphysical structure of historic humanity, something that is essentially independent of the outward forms – social, spiritual and political – which we see so clearly? Are not these actualities indeed secondary or derived from that something? Does world-history present to the seeing eye certain grand traits, again and again, with sufficient constancy to justify certain conclusions? And if so, what are the limits to which reasoning from such premisses may be pushed?" (from The Decline of the West)

Oswald Spengler was born at Blankenburg am Hars, the son of Bernhard Spengler, a post office official, and Pauline (Grantzow) Spengler. The atmosphere of his childhood home was emotionally reserved, and in his loneliness Spengler found consolation from the thoughts of giant cultural personalities: Richard Wagner, Henrik Ibsen, Ernst Haeckel, and Friendrich Nietzsche. After attending the Halle Latin School, Spengler studied at the universities of Munich, Berlin, and Halle, where his main subject was mathematics. He also read philosophy, history and art. In 1903 Spengler failed his oral exams which was a deep blow to his academic career plans, though he passed six months later.

Spengler received his Ph.D. in 1904. His thesis at Berlin was Der metaphysische Grundgedanke der Heraklitischen Philosophie. When Spengler presented his study, his professors said that he had included too few scholarly references. With this condemnation, his road to a post at a leading university was closed and in 1905 he suffered a nervous breakdown. Spengler worked as a teacher in Saarbrücken and Düsseldorf and from 1908 to 1911 he taught science, German, history, and mathematics in a high school in Hamburg. After moving to Munich, where he lived on his inheritance, he started to write the first volume of his magnum opus, Gestalt und Wirklichkeit. Crucial for the work was the Agadir crisis, in which the arrival of the German warship Panther at Agadir triggered a political struggle between France and Germany over control of Morocco. Germany was forced to back down and Spengler believed that it signalled the end of that era. After seeing in a bookshop a volume entitled The Decline of Antiquity, written by Otto Seeck, he knew what name he would give his own book.

Spengler's early years in Munich were marked by poverty and loneliness. He lived in a lugubrious room, spent his mornings at the public library, lunched in cheap cafeterias, and drank tea. He owned no books. To earn extra income he wrote to different magazines and worked as a tutor. He also became known as an outspoken opponent of the Weimar Republic. Gestalt und Wirklichkeit (Form and Actuality) was completed in 1914. Wartime delayed its appearance, publishers did not want to print it, and it was not published until 1917 in Vienna and in Munich the next year. The first printing published by Wilhelm Braumuller was only 1,500 copies. Welthistorische Perspektiven (Perspectives of World History) came out in 1922 together with the first volume, which Spengler had revised. The work had a huge commercial success and became one of the most talked about books in post-war Germany, where defeat in the war was regarded as a national humiliation, and severe depression seemed to prove Spengler's thesis right. Spengler himself had believed in victory while writing Form and Actuality.

The grand vision of history in The Decline of the West deeply influenced Spengler's readers between the world wars. Thomas Mann compared its effect on him to that of reading Schopenhauer for the first time. The work was widely discussed in the 1920s even by those who knew it only superficially. The German artist George Grosz says in his book of memoirs, A Small Yes and a Big No (1982) about his friend, who confessed: "That book is my Bible, Herr Grosz, even though I don't get much time for reading these days..." In academic circles The Decline of the West was received with mixed feelings. Max Weber described Spengler as a "very ingenious and learned dilettante" and Karl Popper attacked Spengler's thesis as "pointless".

Spengler's obscure thoughts, intuitionalism and mysticism were easy targets for his critics. All attempts to find the meaning of history had been denounced by the positivists and neo-Kantians of the late nineteenth century as irresponsible metaphysical speculation. This attitude did not change but was perhaps even hardened after the rise of neo-positivism and analytic tradition. One of the exceptions was the Austrian/British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), who shared Spengler's cultural pessimism, and confessed once that he felt "intensely the terrible degeneration that had come over the human spirit in the course of only a hundred years." Georg Henrik von Wright, Wittgenstein's successor at the University of Cambridge, accepted Spengler's cyclic view of history and wrote in 1951 an essay in which he compared Spengler and Toynbee.

In Preussentum und Sozialismus (1920) Spengler made a difference between Marxism and German socialism as first realized in 18th century Prussia, where the rule of the state over all individuals and classes had been accepted. He advocated the idea that socialism can be part of the conservative ideology, as exemplified in the Prussian tradition with its sense of duty toward the fatherland. In 1931 he published Der Mensch und die Technik in which he warned of the danger of technology and industrialism and their destructive impact on culture. Only dreamers, he claimed, ignored this fact. At the end of the essay, Spengler predicted that the West will lose its technological superiority when companies start to move factories to the low-wage countries. "The machine technology will end with the Faustian civilisation and will one day lie shattered and forgotten – railways and steamships as good as the old Roman roads and the Chinese wall, our giant cities with their skyscrapers just like the old palaces of Memphis and Babylon."

Jahre der Entscheidung (1934, The Hour of Decision) was a bestseller; it sold 150,000 copies, but was condemned by the government. Spengler's attacks on liberal ideas and institutions was first welcomed by the National Socialists, who wrongly believed that The Decline of the West glorified militarism. Although Spengler approved parts of the Nazi program he rejected in his private papers its unscientific biological doctrines and persecution of the Jews. In 1933 Spengler met Hitler, whom Spengler – a conservative humanist – found vulgar; he did not exhibit the qualities that make a true leader. "Mussolini," he said in The Hour of Decision, "is first and foremost a statesman, ice-cold and sceptical, realist, diplomat."

Germany didn't want a "heroic tenor but a real hero," Spengler argued. He quarrelled with one of the chief Nazi theoreticians, Albert Rosenberg, and eventually his pessimism and remarks about the Führer and his followers led to his isolation and public silence. When the Nazis claimed Nietzsche as their intellectual father, Spengler resigned from the Nietzsche Archive's board of directors. Der Untergang was banned along with his other major writings – decline was not what the Nazis propagated: the Third Reich would endure for a thousand years.

In 1933 Spengler became a member of the Academy of Germany. His last years Spengler spent in Munich, listening to Beethoven, reading the works of Shakespeare and Molière, buying several thousand books, and collecting primitive Persian, Turkish, and Hindu weapons. Occasionally he made trips to the Harz Mountains and to Italy. Just before his death Spengler wrote to a friend that in ten years "the German Reich will probably no longer exist." He died suddenly of a heart attack in Munich on May 8, 1936 three weeks before his fifty-sixth birthday. Possibly his death spared him from exile. His sister's daughter, Hildegard Kornhardt, Ph.D. edited and published fragments from Spengler's unfinished works, Reden und Aufsätze (1937) and Gedanken (c. 1941).

"It is, and has always been, a matter of knowledge that the expression-forms of world-history are limited in number, and that eras, epochs, situations, persons, are ever repeating themselves true to type." (from The Decline of the West)

Spengler rejected traditional unilinear accounts of historical development and also causal explanations. Instead he examined history within the framework of cyclic patterns. "Each culture has its own new possibilities of self-expression which arise, ripen, decay and never return." Augustine saw in the City of God a divine plan behind history, and for Marx the driving force behind historical development was the class struggle. In Spengler's garden of cultures there is no gardener, a visible purpose or unifying meaning, except fate, which cannot be explained. Cultures spring mysteriously into being, they have morphological similarities but nothing else.

The central theme in The Decline of the West is that all higher cultures go through a life cycle analogous to that of an organic evolution, from birth to maturation, and to inevitable decline. Spengler also used the analogy of four seasons: the spring (birth and infancy), summer (youth), fall (maturity), and winter (old age and decay). When Toynbee had in his work A Study of History (1914-1961) over twenty great cultures, Spengler found eight which are self-contained and have a distinctive "soul" or "style" – the Egyptian, the Chinese, the Ancient Semitic (Babylonian), the Indian, the Magian (roughly, Arabic), the Apollonian or Greco-Roman, the Faustian or Western, and Mayan. Each of these units has an identical life-cycle lasting some thousand years.

What really separated Spengler from the majority of historians was his method, the "form-language of human history," his concern to see analogies between different cultural epochs. "The means whereby to identify dead forms is Mathematical Law. The means whereby to understand living forms is Analogy," he wrote. Thus he regarded Pythagoras, Mohammed and Cromwell as the embodiments of the one and same puritanical movement, compared modern times to late antiquity and saw similarities between the electoral campaigns of Rome and the United States, and forecast that the Western world would face the same chaos as ancient Egypt in 1800-1550 BC. Spengler acknowledged his debt to Goethe, who followed in his poem 'Die Metamorphose der Pflanze' the development of the plant-form from the leaf through a series of intermediate forms. Goethe's poem also inspired Wittgenstein's views in Logik, Sprache, Philosophie where he dealt with the morphology of the use of an expression. In Culture and Value he wrote: "Spengler could be better understood if he said: I am comparing different cultural epochs with the lives of families; within a family there is a family resemblance, though you will also find a resemblance between members of different families; family resemblance differs from the other sort of resemblance in such and such ways, etc."

Spengler saw that the style of a Soul comes out in the higher Cultures, above all in art, mathematics, philosophy, sciences, music, drama, and poetry, and reflects the essence of the soul of that particular Culture. "There are several number-worlds as there are several Cultures. We find an Indian, an Arabian, a Classical as Western type of mathematical thought, and corresponding with each, a type of number – each type fundamentally peculiar and unique, an expression of a specific world-feeling..." Each of the civilizations has its special driving idea (Urphänomen) – Western culture is characterized by its restless thrust toward the infinite. In architecture this can be seen in Gothic cathedrals and in painting in the use of depth perspective, parallel lines which meet in infinity. Spengler believed that his own era, Faustian, had reached its last stage. One of his most famous prophecies was, expressed in 1921, was that "we Germans will never again produce a Goethe, but indeed a Caesar." (A Road to Nowhere: The Idea of Progress and Its Critics by Matthew W. Slaboch, 2017, p. 92)

Signs of cultural decay were, among other things, atonal music, art produced for oversensitive connoisseurs, manipulation of the public opinion by mass media, imperialism, and Caesarism", a universal, formless will to power, which breaks the dictatorship of plutocracy and its political ally, democracy. According to Spengler, Russia did not belong to Western culture. A Faustian soul looks upward, a Russian soul toward the horizon. Thus Russian "Urphänomen" is the boundless steppe.

While acknowledging the merits of Spengler's work, Hermann Hesse said that his "mistake is simply lack of humor and flexibility, a certain professional excess of seriousness and gravity that is perceptible even in his very cultivated, readable, and engaging style." (My Belief: Essays on Life and Art, 1979, p. 370) Spengler's impact was in his time immense but brief. In the West, where progress and  economic growth have been regarded as one and the same thing, Spengler's work has been "redicovered" during times of economic turmoil, and then forgotten for a period. In the 1960s a new interest arose toward The Decline of the West when its abridged English version was published. It was also said that Henry Kissinger gave the work to President Nixon as a bedside book.

Although Spengler is little read today, the idea of cyclical history has not been lost. It has been picked up some modern authors, including Paul Kennedy (The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, 1987) and Jared Diamond (Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, 2005). Spengler's "drama of a number of mighty Cultures . . . each having its own idea, its own passions, its own life" was echoed in Samuel Huntington's famous book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1996). At the turn of the millennium Spengler's prophesies received in Europe less attention than Nostradamus's predictions and Karl Marx's anticipation of the future form of society. Niall Ferguson has asked in Civilization. The West and the Rest (2011) that what if "historical time is less like the slow and predictable changing of seasons and more like the elastic time of our dreams? Above all, what if collapse is not centuries in the making but strikes a civilizations suddenly, like a thief in the night?"

For further reading: Spenglers Untergang des Abendlandes by Eduard Meyer (1925); Oswald Spengler: Prophet of World Chaos by R. Steiner (1948); Oswald Spengler: a Critical Estimate by H.S. Hughes (1952); Twilight of the European Lands - Oswald Spengler a Half Century Later, ed. by J.F. Fennelly (1970); Perspectives on History by W. Dray (1980); Oswald Spengler: mit Selbstzeugnissen und Bilddokumenten by Jürgen Naeher (c. 1984); History and Prophecy: Oswald Spengler and the Decline of the West by Klaus P. Fischer (1989); Oswald Spengler by H. Stuart Hughes (1991); Prophet of Decline: Spengler on World History and Politics by John Farrenkopf (2001); Prophets of Decline: The Global Histories of Brooks Adams, Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee in the United States 1896-1961 by Petri Kuokkanen (2003); Oswald Spengler: eine politische Biographie by Sebastian Maass (2013); A Road to Nowhere: The Idea of Progress and Its Critics by Matthew W. Slaboch (2017); Spenglers Visionen: hundert Jahre Untergang des Abendlandes by Peter Strasser (2018); 'Oswald Spengler and the Decline of the West' by David Engels, in Key Thinkers of the Radical Right: Behind the New Threat to Liberal Democracy, edited by Mark Sedgwick (2019)

Selected works:

  • Der metaphysische Grundgedanke der Heraklitischen Philosophie, 1904
  • Der Untergang des Abenlandes: Umrisse einer Morphologie der Weltgeschichte, 1918-22 (2 vols.: Gestalt und Wirklichkeit; Welthistorische Perspektives)
    - The Decline of the West (2 vols., authorized translation with notes by Charles Francis Atkinson F. Atkinson, 1926) / Today and Destiny: Vital Excerpts from The Decline of the West of Oswald Spengler (arranged with an introduction and commentary by Edwin Franden Dakin, based on the text of the authorized translation of Charles Francis Atkinson, 1940) / The Decline of the West (an abridged edition by Helmut Werner; English abridged edition prepared by Arthur Helps, from the translation by Charles Francis Atkinson, 1961)
    - Länsimaiden perikato: maailmanhistorian morfologian ääriviivoja (suom. Yrjö Massa; lyhennetty laitos, 1961)
  • Preussentum und Sozialismus, 1920
    - Prussianism and Socialism (tr. 1920; in Selected Essays, edited by Donald O. White, 1967)
  • Pessimismus?, 1922
  • Die Revolution ist nicht zu Ende, c. 1924
  • Neubau des deutschen Reiches, 1924
  • Politische Pflichten der deutschen Jugend; rede gehalten am 26. februar 1924 vor dem Hochschulring deutscher art in Würzburg, 1925
  • Der Mensch und die Technik, 1931
    - Man and Technics: A Contribution to a Philosophy of Life (translated by C.T. Atkinson, 1932)
    - Ihminen ja tekniikka (suom. Matti Simola, 2016)
  • Politische schriften, 1932
  • Die Revolution ist nicht zu Ende, 1932
  • Jahre der Entscheidung, 1933
    - The Hour of Decision (translated by C.F. Atkinson, 1934)
    - Ratkaisun vuosia. 1. osa, Saksa ja maailmanhistoriallinen kehitys (suomentanut Erik Ahlman, 1934)
  • Reden und Aufsätze, 1937 (edited by Hildegard Kornhardt)
    - Selected Essays (translated by Donald O. White, 1967)
  • Today and Destiny; Vital Excerpts from The Decline of the West of Oswald Spengler, 1940 (arranged with an introduction and commentary by Edwin Franden Dakin)
  • Gedanken, c. 1941 (edited by Hildegard Konrnhardt)
    - Aphorisms (translated by Gisela Koch-Weser O’Brien, 1967)
  • Briefe, 1913-1936, 1963 (edited by Anton M. Koktanek)
    - The Letters of Oswald Spengler, 1913-1936 (edited and translated by A. Helps, 1966)
  • Urfragen; Fragmente aus dem Nachlass, 1965 (edited by Anton Mirko Koktanek and Manfred Schröter)
  • Frühzeit der Weltgeschichte: Fragmenten asu dem Nachlass, 1966 (edited by A.M. Kortanek and Manfred Schröter)
  • Der Briefwechsel zwischen Oswald Spengler und Wolfgang E. Groeger: über russische Literatur, Zeitgeschichte und soziale Fragen, 1987 (edited by Xenia Werner)
  • Ich beneide jeden, der lebt: die Aufzeichnungen "Eis heauton" aus dem Nachlass, 2007 (afterword by Gilbert Merlio)

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